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HSE boss says rapid acceleration of cases and staff 'scheduling issue' led to contact tracing backlog

Paul Reid also said he takes responsibility for the fact that the government was not informed of the issues at the weekend.

Image: Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov

THE HSE HAS said the rapid acceleration of Covid-19 cases in the community and a staff ‘scheduling issue’ led to the contact tracing system being overwhelmed at the weekend, resulting in those who tested positive being asked to inform their own close contacts of their potential exposure to the virus.

The HSE is in the process of asking between 2,000 and 2,500 people who received positive results on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of last week to alert their own contacts due to what it described as “unprecedented pressure” on the contact tracing system.

Anyone who received a positive result from Monday onwards will have their contact tracing handled by the health service as usual.

Speaking at the HSE’s weekly briefing today, CEO Paul Reid said the decision had not been taken lightly, but it was “the right decision”.

He said the system came under pressure due to the rapid acceleration of cases, more complex calls and longer call times.

“What happened at the weekend – and we continue to recruit more people – there were scheduling issues, we didn’t have enough people for that rapid acceleration.”

Niamh O’Beirne, National Lead for Testing and Tracing, said more staff generally work in the contact tracing centres midweek.

“That weekend we didn’t have an ideal number of staff on,” she said. “Once a backlog is created, it becomes difficult to recover from it while cases are continuing to grow.”

She said some calls with index cases – the initial person who tests positive – are lasting up to 50 minutes as tracing staff have to gather 77 data points to understand more about the person and where may have picked up the virus.

“Close contacts calls are shorter [than calls with people who test positive], but there are instances where they have to encourage and cajole people to come along for test or that they are close contact because it does involve restricting movements,” she said.

The HSE is recruiting for additional staff for contact tracing centres and the first 800 people are through the interview process, with 220 working already.

The health service intends to bring 60-70 additional staff on stream each week. However there are 125 staff working on contact tracing who are to return to other roles once new staff take their places.

80 Defence Forces staff, who were trained in contact tracing at the start of the pandemic, are available to provide support and some have been drafted in this week to help.

Anger in government

There was anger yesterday in government circles as it emerged neither the Health Minister or the Taoiseach had been informed of the decision over the weekend.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil yesterday that the HSE did not inform him of the problem and that he found out when someone sent him a news article about it.

“I got a text last evening which included the Irish Times article, that’s when I first knew. So I wasn’t informed of this operational measure that the HSE undertook,” he said.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said it was “extraordinary” that the Taoiseach had found out this way and he wanted to know when the Health Minister was informed.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy says she was “absolutely shocked” that the Taoiseach had found out by text.

“This is not a minor deal, you should have been been aware of this, you should have been aware of just how under pressure the system was,” Murphy said.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly also only learned of the decision on Tuesday night.

Today Paul Reid said he takes responsibility for the fact that the Health Minister and Taoiseach were not informed of the decision at the weekend.

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Close contacts

Those who received positive tests on Friday, Saturday and Sunday will receive a three-part message explaining what they are expected to do, with a link to a web page with detailed information.

This web page includes tips on what to consider when compiling their list of close contacts such as visitors to their homes, taxi journeys, sports activities and hair appointments.

“You may not know the names and numbers of everyone you were in contact with. For example, if you were at an event or in shared accommodation. In these cases, call the Covid officer or manager of the event or venue.

“If you were at work 48 hours before your symptoms began, or 24 hours before your positive Covid-19 test result, phone your employer to let them know.”

People are advised to follow-up their text message with a phonecall to their close contacts. The HSE has provided guidance on how to manage these “difficult calls”, including acknowledging their concern or upset and telling them to call their GP with any questions they have.

People who tested positive from Friday to Sunday will also be sent a message template they can forward to their close contacts. It says:

“The HSE is asking [person who has tested positive for Covid-19] to pass on this text to their close contacts.

“As a close contact of this person you need to phone your GP within 2 days to get a free Covid-19 test. You must restrict your movements (stay at home) for 14 days from when you were last in contact with [name of positive case], even if you have no symptoms.”

The message also includes a link to further advice for those impacted, such as restricting their movements for 14 days from the time they last had contact with the confirmed case.

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